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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Asymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday

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First time novelist Lisa Halliday has found an audience and critical buzz by virtue of the publication of Asymmetry.

Book Review
Asymmetry (2018)
by Lisa Halliday
Published by Simon & Schuster

      One of the vagaries of the interaction between the capitalist-market economy and artistic production is that an unknown artists best opportunity to become known is with the publication of their FIRST book, movie, album.  If an audience eludes an artist on their first try, whatever the circumstances, the chances do not grow, but rather diminish over time.   This is not, of course, what is taught to aspiring artists, who often focus on growing their skills and resulting audience over time.  Perhaps because the idea that if people don't read your first book they will never read any subsequent book is too grim to internalize.

   Conversely, if a new artist does obtain a popular audience and critical acclaim for, say, a first work of literary fiction, as has been the case with the novel Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, it buts that author in a superior position to have all subsequent books taken seriously by both a popular audience and critics, and inevitably sets up the possibility of canonical status, often for the writing of the first book itself.

  The fact that a work of serious literary fiction can land a place on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is a hodge podge of celebrity, self help books and genre works.  Any place on any list by a work of literary fiction is impressive.  That, plus a sheaf of high profile, laudatory reviews in the critical organs of record: New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc is about as good as it gets for a first time

  If a prospective reader is looking for a "why" beyond the description of a smart book that combines a transgressive roman a clef with the problems of a Muslim-American trapped at Heathrow on his way to search for his missing brother in Iraq, there is the inclusion of Ezra Blazer as the much older love interest for twenty something Alice, a Harvard graduate, albeit one who doesn't know how to pronounce the name of the author Camus, who is trying to find her way in contemporary New York City.

  Blazer is clearly and obviously based on Nobel Prize NOT Winning author Philip Roth, with whom Halliday had an affair, in her 20's, when she was working for Roth's New York based literary agent's office.   As other reviewers have mentioned, much of the pleasure gained from Asymmetry from combining this no doubt interesting but hardly uplifting may-september affair with the story of Amar, an Iraqi American stuck in Heathrow airport.  The reader is led to suspect that this portion has been written by Alice, the character in the first section.  This gives rise to a series of interesting questions that can be loosely described as "meta fictional" paradoxes or complications.

 Asymmetry is, in a word, more than the sum of its parts.  As a first novel it represents an opportunity for critics to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new talent, and while a Pulitzer seems outlandish, Asymmetry does seem like the kind of debut that might grab the attention of the National Book Award, which has shown a fondness for young, female writers in recent years.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fruits of the Earth (1895) by Andre Gide

Book Review
Fruits of the Earth (1895)
 by Andre Gide

  Honestly I've gotten so little out of the four Andre Gide titles on the 1001 Books list that it is embarrassing.  By this point, having read all four books, I could tell you that he was active in the late 19th and early 20th century, and that he was an inspiration to the mid 20th century existentialist writers.  And that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947.  Fruits of the Earth is barely a novel if at all so, it's more accurately described as a prose-poem, with everything that entails in terms of flowerly language and utter lack of a story.

  Fruits of Earth bears enough resemblance to the writing of Henry Thoreau, that it makes me wonder if Thoreau was translated into French in the 19th century, but both are part of larger "back to nature" aesthetic movement that was consistent in the west for centuries. 

The Golden Ass (158 AD) by Apulieus

Book Review
The Golden Ass (158 AD)
by Apulieus

   Wikipedia calls The Golden Ass, "the only wholly surviving Roman novel."  It is about a man, Lucius, who narrates the book, who is turned into a donkey.  He is then sold, traded or stolen through a series of master-owners, some benign, others not benign.  The Golden Ass is rude, funny, profane and ridiculous, and gives the reader a sense of what Roman popular literary culture must have appreciated in their light reading material. It's obvious that The Golden Ass was written in an era when paganism is alive and well- Lucius describes sequences of peasants being driven into a frenzy based on a series of natural "omens," giving you a sense of how the sober submission of early Christians to one God must have obviated a host of harmful superstitions.

   I read the Kind edition of The Golden Ass- a terrible decision- Ebooks and Audiobooks are not as good for books that are written in pre-modern languages.  Basically, the closer you get to the present day, the better chance that an Ebook or Audiobook will "work."  Even though The Golden Ass is only a hundred something pages long it took me a month to get through it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Suitable Boy (1993) by Vikram Seth

Book Review
A Suitable Boy (1993)
by Vikram Seth

  The first fact any potential reader needs to know about A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's post-Indian independence epic, is its length: 1349 pages in hardback, 1500 pages in the paperback(!) reprint(!) edition that I read after literally years of procrastination.    The first comparison any reader or writer about the book is likely to make is to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which is slightly shorter than A Suitable Boy (1225 page) and was also originally published in serial format as supposed to A Suitable Boy which was both written and published as an extraordinarily long one volume novel.

 A Suitable Boy tells the stories of several interlinked families who inhabit a fictional north Indian state with a strong hindu tradition and a substantial, even after post partition, muslim population.  The horrors of partition haunt the events of A Suitable Boy, but they take place off stage- in the past of this particular book, which, for all its ridiculous page length occurs more or less in chronological sequence over the course of a year plus. 

  The length in this case, is the number of narratives that Seth weaves together, and the extraordinary depth of analyses he brings to topics as varied as the post-Independence national political scene, the politics of the literature department of a major Anglo-Indian University, the decisions of the newly independent Indian Supreme Court, issues in the Indian shoe manufacturing industry, and of course, the master narrative, revolving around the determination of a mother to get her willful college-educated daughter married to "A Suitable Boy" which in her case means a Hindu of equal caste, not too rich but not poor.

  To say that the "central plot" of A Suitable Boy is the marriage plot involving Lata Mehra and her three suitors is like saying that War and Peace is about some battles in the Napoleonic wars.   Lata and her marriage woes disappear for hundreds of pages towards the middle and end of A Suitable Boy, which is more centrally concerned with the "sub" plot involving Minister Kapoor, his conflicts with the Congress part of which he is a charter member and the adventures of his purposeless son, Maan, who is NOT a suitor for Lata, but who becomes a central focus of A Suitable Boy for the last 500 pages.

 Seth's almost jaw dropping erudition in the context of a work of historical fiction about a confusing place like post-independence India is obviously a major attraction of A Suitable Boy.   An American reader as unfamiliar with the actual events of 1950's India outside of works of literature is limited in the ability to fact check anything Seth says, but you could also argue that any inaccuracy is part of a complex artistic vision.  Really, it is a world in itself but it feels so real that I found myself double checking that the places involved were, in fact, fictional.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

Book Review
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
 by Oscar Wilde

  It is unclear how I missed The Picture of Dorian Gray during my sweep through the late 19th century.  It's a particularly unchallenging portion of the canon, biding time between the peak of the 19th century realist saga and the upset caused by the emergence of literary modernism.  Unlike many of the representative works of that period, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a dour, five hundred page morality tale about life for farmer workers in the English countryside.  It's not, formally speaking, a modernist work, but Wilde's ideas about the nature of notoriety and morality foreshadow the invention of mass-median drive celebrity culture of the 20th century.  Wilde was writing before movies and television, but I would hardly be the the first writer to observe the parallel between the character of Dorian Gray and a modern-day Kardashian or Warhol Factory Superstar.

 Like many genre-surpassing science fiction authors, it is the strength of the idea, rather than the strength of his prose that likely led to the inclusion of The Picture of Dorian Gray as Wilde's sole representative work on the 1001 Books list.  This sole representative also likely reflects that Wilde himself was more of a celebrity than a literary giant.   Certainly, his reliance on epigrams is at time ingenious and also maddening. The depiction of Gray's descent into decadence is an almost inexplicable set of chapters about tapestries and objects d arte that reads like something written in the 18th century- as far away from literary modernism as is possible.

  Wilde's sin absorbing portrait has its contemporary analogue in the photo editing app people have on their smart phones, or the waste bins at the offices of Beverly Hills area plastic surgeons.

The Sparsholt Affair (2017) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Sparsholt Affair (2017)
by Alan Hollinghurst

   The longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2018 was announced yesterday.  Thirteen books on the longlist, and three Americans in that group: Rachel Kushner, for The Mars Room, her California women's prison book, Richard Powers for his tree-hugging saga The Overstory and artist/author Nick Drnaso, who has received the first ever Booker Prize nomination for a graphic novel, Sabrina.  Of the other nominees, only two are not from the UK/Ireland, no nominees from Australia, New Zealand, Africa or South Asia, which strikes me as highly unusual.  The two non UK/'Ireland authors are both Canadians.

  The only prior winner is Michael Ondaatje, for Warlight.  Ondaatje also recently won the so-called Booker of Bookers for The English Patient- besting Rushdie and Midnight's Children, which had won a similar Best of Booker Prize Booker Prize a few years back.  Absent from the longlist was this book by prior winner Alan Hollinghurst, for The Line of Beauty in 2004.  His first nomination for the Booker was in 1994 for The Folding Star

  Like his other books, The Sparsholt Affair is a closely observed book- with a historical first act taking place at Oxford University during the early 1960's, homosexuality still being a criminal offense.  Also like his other books, The Sparsholt Affair is about the experience of being a gay, English, man, both before and after homosexuality was decriminalized in the mid 1960's.  The Oxford setting is deeply reminiscent of late early 20th century writers like Eveyln Waugh.  Hollinghurst is nothing is not a (the?) preeminent prose stylist writing in English today, and the reader expects beautiful language on every page.

  When I read of the American publication of The Sparsholt Affair earlier this year (after a fall 2017 release in the UK, where Hollinghurst is a much bigger deal), it seemed like the ideal candidate for a good Audiobook edition.  Of course, the publisher would want to do right by such a beautiful writer, and of course, The Sparsholt Affair sounds great.  However, at over 400 pages in print, the listening time is over 10 hours.  The sheer density of observation made portions of The Sparsholt Affair more curious than beautiful.

  I had presumed that this book would be a lock for at least the Booker longlist, especially in a year with so many nominees from England and the greater UK area. It is almost shocking.

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